McGahn, wary of "Saturday Night Massacre," refused Trump order to fire Mueller

By Grace Segers

/ CBS News

CBSN

Special counsel Robert Mueller's report, a redacted version of which was released to the public Thursday morning, revealed President Trump ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller in 2017. McGahn refused to do so and threatened to resign instead, telling an associate the president had asked him to do "crazy shit."

The report examines whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice by attempting to halt the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mueller did not make a determination as to whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice, although Attorney General William Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded the president had not done so.

However, the report by the special counsel's office laid out evidence of Mr. Trump's opposition of the investigation.

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"Our investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations," the report said. Mr. Trump directed McGahn to remove the special counsel in June 2017.

McGahn told special counsel investigators that Mr. Trump called him twice, telling him "Mueller has to go" and ordering him to inform Rosenstein of his decision. McGahn felt uncomfortable with the request, according to the report, and did not want to trigger a "Saturday Night Massacre" situation, referring to President Nixon's infamous purge of Justice Department officials who refused to fire the special prosecutor investigating Watergate in 1973.

McGahn decided to tender his resignation, but former chief of staff Reince Priebus and adviser Steve Bannon convinced him not to do so.

"Priebus recalled that McGahn said that the President had asked him to do 'crazy shit,'" the report said, but McGahn did not go into detail.

McGahn had not told Mr. Trump he planned to resign, and when he next spoke to Mr. Trump, the president did not follow up on his directive.

Mr. Trump's order to McGahn was followed almost immediately by a directive to adviser Corey Lewandowski to tell then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the scope of the Russia investigation "to prospective election-interference only."

The special counsel's office called these two successive events "a temporal connection that suggests that both acts were taken with a related purpose with respect to the investigation."

"The President's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President decline to carry out orders or accede to his requests," the report said.

Lewandowski and Rick Dearborn, Mr. Trump's former deputy chief of staff, also did not ask Sessions to limit the special counsel's investigation.

After The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump had ordered McGahn to fire Mueller in early 2018, Mr. Trump denied he had done so and called McGahn a "lying bastard."

Mr. Trump attempted to convince McGahn to write a letter saying he had never told him to fire Mueller. McGahn refused to do so, according to the special counsel report. He also "shrugged off" the potential threat that Mr. Trump might fire him, saying "the optics would be terrible if the President followed through with firing him on that basis."

After a "tense" meeting in the Oval Office, in which Mr. Trump called on McGahn to put out a "correction" and McGahn insisted the conversation had occurred, "the President's personal counsel called McGahn's counsel and relayed that the president was 'fine' with McGahn."

First published on April 18, 2019 / 1:58 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Grace Segers

Grace Segers is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.

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